Monthly Archives: June 2014

Beautiful Ruins

ImageSince this book came out, every customer that has come through the doors of my place of employment has said the same thing: “This book is amazing.”  It’s been on the bestsellers list for about five million years, everyone says it’s the best summer read you could possibly enjoy.

I didn’t like it.

Go ahead, take a minute to visit other websites and read other reviews and see if you’re prepared to agree with me.  If you want, look at the list of publications and websites which declare it the “best book of the year.”


Better yet, let me just list this for you:

*Esquire’s Best book of 2012
*NPR-Fresh Air best Novel of 2012
*Audible and Salon best audio book of 2012
*New York Times Notable Book of the Year
*Washington Post Notable Book of the Year
*In UK, Guardian, Times and Sunday Times Best Books of the Year 
*Best books of the year: Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, St. Louis Today, Kansas City Star, Goodreads, Hudsons, Barnes and Noble, Amazon

Reviews declare it “a literary miracle” and “a high-wire feat of bravura storytelling,” and call Jess Walter a genius.

I’m not saying he’s not a genius, nor that this is a terrible book.  What I’m saying is that I’ve read worse, but I’ve certainly read better.

The story hops around several years and locations, mainly focused on Italy in the 1960s (during filming of Cleopatra).  Our cast of characters includes the lovely Italian man, Pasquale, who falls (?) in love with an actress, but not Liz Taylor.  Nope, it’s another woman who has secrets of her own.  Flash forward to modern Hollywood, where the assistant to a once-prominent producer is struggling with her job (which she seemingly hates) and her deadbeat, sex-addict boyfriend.  Oh, and there’s a screenwriter with his own issues coming to town to pitch his idea for Donner!, a film focused on, surprise, the Donner Party.

Wait a minute, you must be thinking, how could you not love something like this?

For all the ideas running through my head about how the stories come together, how the book ends, and how I can connect with the characters as a human being, the reality of the book was… disappointing.  Several passages dragged on, and the construction of the Richard Burton-related storyline felt… mediocre.

I know I’m blaspheming against those who determine what is “Literature” by disliking this book, but I just didn’t see what was so brilliant.  At first, I thought it would make a good movie, and now I’m pretty much certain that would be the only way to do it.  There’s so much potential, and the setting of the Italian coast is, obviously, beautiful.  I mean, just look at the cover.  It’s gorgeous.  The film could be just glorious.

But unless they change the entire ending (which, in an attempt to actually try to be spoiler-free with this one, since people seem to have it on their list of things to read more often than not, I will not discuss), I won’t be happy.  I wanted more.  I didn’t want complete stories, nor did I want something philosophical and grand.  But I wanted more from my characters, and I just felt like they all… settled.

Maybe it’s the point I’m at in my life – I want to believe in something more, something greater, and having what I consider a deus ex machina in the last quarter of the book doesn’t convince me that these journeys we take are worthwhile.  I finished the book feeling like, “Yeah, okay.  So life is pretty decent.  Not great.  But good enough that we’ll make it work.”

Maybe I missed something.  Maybe I’m dumb.  And that’s okay.  All I know is that I’ll find it difficult to recommend this book simply because, unless I reread it in the next few years and discover what I’m missing now, I don’t have any powerful emotion toward it.

Sorry, Mr. Walter.  But I’m more than happy to give another one of your books a shot.

Probably after I’ve sunk my teeth into something a little more enjoyable.  Just in case.



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